The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Heathenism in S.E. London
by Charlotte F. Yonge
The Religious Influences of South London are two of the latest volumes which Mr. [Charles]Booth has added to his stupendous work of the Life of the People in London. They are depressing in one way, as they give such overwhelming proof that religion has entirely lost its hold over the bulk of the people. Not only the Church of England, but Roman Catholics, Wesleyans, Baptists,* and others. Missionaries and Bible-readers all testify, more or less, to the fact that religion influences an individual here and there, but that the thousands round are living lives of practical heathenism. The majority have no interests but beer, sport, and how to pay their way. In some churches the adult congregation chiefly consists of the women who come to be churched; there is a deep-rooted superstition of child-birth else bringing ill luck. Occasionally, also, women come to church on the chance of currying favour and receiving some benefit. Men are conspicuous by their absence; they do not, as a rule, get up till twelve o'clock on a Sunday, and then, when they can afford it, have a heavy dinner, after which they sleep and loaf about for the remainder of the day. If a man is gained over to go to church or chapel, he knows he will meet with chaff, if not actual bullying; in one church it has been noticed that should a man become a communicant he leaves his club. Mr. Booth, speaking of St. George's R.C. Cathedral, Southwark, says the hold of that Church is slight until sickness comes or death threatens, when her ministrations are sought. The question of High and Low does not seem to affect people. Of the actively worked Charter House Mission in Tabard Street and Long Lane, a very poor and bad district, it is reported that though there are the usual services, celebrations, and processions, there has been almost complete failure in bringing men to church. On Sunday evening there may be 200 or 300 women at the most (out of 8,000 parishioners), but the other services are attended principally by the sisters and the few other workers. Everywhere things are on a small scale in the way of numbers in anything religious. One vicar tells Mr. Booth, and his words are echoed by workers all round, that "most things have been tried and failed." It has been forcibly said that work with the adults is "like driving a nail into rotten wood." Hope, however, lies with the children, and the work among them is promising, as is noted both by church and chapel workers, and the schoolmasters and mistresses.
The causes of irreligious life are much dwelt upon by Mr. Booth. The pressure of poverty, and the living from hand to mouth, which takes away all thought from people save how to satisfy their immediate bodily wants. The poverty he attributes to many reasons, three coming before the most obvious one of lack of earning power; they are drink, betting, and the grip of the money-lender. It is said small money-lenders may be found in every court, and the customary rate of interest is one penny per shilling per week! Betting is an ever-increasing evil; it absorbs men's minds, and regular pay for honest work is little thought of by those who dream they may win by successfully gambling or betting. A schoolmaster in a S.E. London school lately told the present writer that he always tried to prevent his boys going as assistants in barbers' shops, as the betting talk was incessantly carried on by the loungers there waiting to be shaved.
We have spoken of the young as the one bright spot in the work of religious influence. There is another hope for the South-East, which lies in the increasing flux of workers during the last few years, especially in the Settlements and College Missions. Some years back the south of the river was regarded as a poor part, but the vagueness about it was so extreme that poverty in London was taken by most to mean the East End, Whitechapel, and thereabouts. It will not be much more than a generation, perhaps, before the Thames will divide two equally large parts of London, as population in the South-East increases twice as fast as that on the other side of the river. It is personal help, workers with knowledge and insight, time and brain power, that is needed to solve the human and social problems of poverty. It is the fact that Settlements emphasize this need, and seek to supply it, that makes them of such immense importance to the task of social transformation. In addition to the Settlements are many workers, living alone or in twos and threes, joining in social and religious work.
Although the religious effect is small, the civilizing one, and the raising of standards, would seem to be on the increase. The clubs and institutes do not lead to church-going, but they tend to social reformation. "Many men who come rough and uncivilized are now walking about London stead and respectable men, though they may never enter a church; just as you may often make a man a teetotaller without leading him to higher things."
Reckless giving of charity has not quite died out, and still does much harm, but we must hope that all workers will be gradually educated above that temptation. Mr. Booth notices that some vestries are progressive and vigorous bodies, and sanitation and health is well looked after, though it is very difficult to enforce the laws against overcrowding, as people have nowhere else to go to, and the rents are rising as more and more warehouses are built. The Guinness buildings are well managed, and a great boon to the people they admit, but large families are excluded. We are glad to find that the R.S.P.C.C. is held in wholesome dread; there are, alas! many cases of cruelty to children, but more from neglect than active cruelty.
Mr. Booth's volumes should certainly be read by all who care for their religion, their country, their people. Though referring to London, there is much that is equally applicable to the irreligion and poverty in other cities. There is much to depress, but there is also hope for the future—in the children, in the civilization of some of the adults, in the energy and science brought to bear by workers of all sorts, and in the increased interest and knowledge about the hitherto neglected South London, which last this volume will do so much to quicken. To conclude with Mr. Booth's own words:—"Among the working classes there is less hostility to, and perhaps even less criticism of, the churches than in the past. The success at the polls, whether for Boards of Guardians, Borough Councils, or the School Board, of men and women who, in the name of religion, are giving their lives to the service of the people, is one of the noteworthy facts in democratic rule."
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*Baptists have fuller congregations, due to Mr. Spurgeon's personality, but more of the middle class, and many from a distance.
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Hana 'ia i Hawai'i, October 2008